This was an inspirational story as well, not just a negative one – Dylan Mohan Gray
Dylan Mohan Gray’s award-winning documentary Fire in the Blood showcases the dark reality of Western pharmaceutical giants who blocked access to low-cost AIDS drugs for the countries of Africa causing millions of deaths and also the heroic tale of people that rose to fight against these atrocities.
What triggered the making of this film?
Initially it was an article I read in the newspaper in 2004 that triggered my interest. Through a series of coincidences, I happened to meet key people of the film. I’d already started reading about the issue out of personal interest but wasn’t really planning to make a film about it. I have a background in history and I’ve seen that many times in the past major stories and episodes in history have been lost to public awareness because they weren’t documented properly. This seemed to be a case like that, where something really massive had happened, which no one had any real knowledge about. When I started looking for books and films on the subject there were none. There was nothing about it except for contemporary news reports that were superficial and only told a very small part of the story. So on the one hand I was very angry that this extremely important story was being lost and on the other I felt like all the reading I did indicated that something like this could happen again very easily. So it was really important to tell the story. Also as time went on and I started to learn about the people involved, I realised this was a really inspirational story as well, not just a negative story, of people who defied the odds and took on some of the most powerful governments and corporations in the world and actually won. They didn’t win the war but they won a very important battle. That was also for me, very dramatic, it had a lot of film potential. So it inspired and moved me to make the film.
What is the kind of research that went into putting this film together?
There really wasn’t much information on the Internet but you got the broad strokes of it. It was more about figuring who the people are that we needed to talk to, and I spoke to a lot of people. So initially I read a lot, did do a lot of Internet research, went to the libraries, sifted through the material that was there. Then I started calling people, emailing them, asking specific questions and when I found the right people, I went to meet them, wherever it was possible. Where it wasn’t possible we would do Skype or telephone interviews and I recorded them. I used that material to write the script of the film. Documentary scripts are very fluid, the script that I wrote was very different from the film that it ended up being. But the major points were of course there. In this case, part of the thing that made the film work and the reason that people connected with it was that there was a lot of new information in the film. In a way it is a challenge but also an opportunity because you are telling a story that is not known and that means that more people are going to be interested in it. Part of the urgency to make the film was that I saw that some of the key figures were never asked a question, they had never written the stuff down and so they were starting to forget some of the really important details. It was very important to document the story at the time we did because if we did it today, many of those details would have been forgotten. Now this film exists as a permanent document and that is important to me, much more than just making a film.
How much of the film is archival footage?
We had many cuts of the film and several test screenings. The hardest part of the film was the research to find the archived footage rather than the research to tell the story. A lot of the stuff was not available or is expensive or the copyright is owned by somebody who doesn’t want you to tell the story, like drug companies, so they will never give it. So it was a very long, difficult process, to find the archival footage. At any given time there were up to 300 given sources of archived material in the film. Now in the final version that released on DVD, there are about 70 or 80 sources. Currently around 30 per cent of the film is archival. I always wanted a lot of archived material in the film because fundamentally we are telling a story considered to be one of the great crimes in history and it has to have a feeling that we have the actual footage of these things and we are telling a historical story. A lot of footage that we found, especially from NGOS, individuals etc., is very raw, amateurish but it has a sense of immediacy and urgency which news footage doesn’t have.
Since the documentary travels across various locations, was it easy to get permissions to shoot?
We shot the film in eight countries. Some of them were easy to shoot while some were not. It is quite easy to shoot in the USA, for instance. In other places, there were no conflict situations but countries like Mozambique or Uganda or certain South American countries, don’t generally have the equipment or in some cases the crew that we needed. When we were shooting in different African countries we hired crew and equipment from South Africa. It was difficult in terms of the customs and the duties in some places because they don’t have a lot of people going there to shoot. There was a lot of bureaucracy. On the ground we didn’t face any issues. In a way, it is more challenging to shoot in India than any of the other countries mainly because you get such huge, inquisitive crowds while shooting. In other countries they just let you get on with it. Also, my wife, Rumana, who was producing the film did a lot of research to find the right people to work with us, so we had very good parters pretty much everywhere we went.
How willing were people to face the camera and share their opinions? How did you manage to reach out to personalities like Bill Clinton?
Some of the ordinary people who have HIV were very willing to talk while others were quite hesitant. It is not that people didn’t want to tell their stories but when cameras get involved, they see something that is going to attract a lot of attention and so they tend to worry. Their relatives put pressure on them, tell them not to talk because they aren’t getting paid, are drawing attention to themselves and so on. I wanted everybody in the film to have had a direct role in the issue. Even Former President Clinton or Archbishop Desmond Tutu were directly involved in the story, we didn’t get them just because they are big names. It took around one and half year of work to get an interview with Bill Clinton. We really wanted him in the film because he played a big role in this story and it added a lot to the film.
Did you try contacting representatives of Pharma companies to get their reactions?
The problem with the drug companies is that they don’t want this story told, don’t want to attract attention to it, don’t want to go on record; their hands are obviously covered in blood on this issue. Likewise there are numerous government officials whohave behaved in an absolutely horrific criminal manner. Typically with big drug companies, they change their leadership quite regularly, so almost three generations of leadership have passed through the big companies in the time since the main events of our film occurred. Usually when those people finish working at the companies they are given huge amounts of money as a golden handshake and they have to sign a confidentiality agreement that gags them from speaking to people like us. Even though I spoke to many of them off the record, they would either say that they don’t want to speak on record or that they would be happy to speak on record but they can’t because they have signed these confidentiality agreements. The companies today, if I try to get in touch with Pfizer or GlaxoSmithKline, will ask me to interview one of their PR people. That might be okay for a TV news debate but it’s totally inadequate for a feature documentary film which aims to become the definitive account of a hugely important episode in history. I wanted somebody who has or had leading management roles in those companies, but in the end those people were not willing to talk to us. The one person in the film who is not directly involved in this story is Dr. Peter Rost, former Vice-President of Pfizer, and he in a sense gives the “Big Pharma” perspective on things having spent 30 years in senior management in the industry.
Was it easy to get financiers for this film?
Part of it was self financed and we also had people contributing, both in terms of money and other things like legal services, archive material, and so on. Our composer, for example, worked on the music for over two years for the same rate he usually earns in a day or two. Both my wife and I have worked in the industry for quite some time and this is our first home production so we were able to call in a lot of favours, and beyond that many, many people helped us out. A lot of people in Mumbai primarily, a number of whom were familiar with the story definitely contributed to the making of the film.
Considering that you’re dealing with an issue that is sensitive, troubling yet one that has to be told, how did you as a director undertake this journey?
For me, on the one hand the story this film tells is really horrifying, really disturbing. On the other hand there is a lot of inspiration one can derive from the ways people chose to take on this issue. Had it just been a very negative and depressingstory, I would certainly have thought twice about making a film on it. It is very difficult for people to be given information about something that is really awful and left feeling like they are completely powerless. You want to give people the sense that they can do something. The reason why this story lent itself to making a film was because I thought the cast of characters was very interesting, the people were very charismatic, there was a lot of good archive material and it happened in different parts of the world so there was a whole international element to it. Specifically for Indian audiences, both in India and other parts of the world, they tend to react very positively to the role that India played in this, and this is also very important to me. I want Indians to understand that this country can also be a very positive force and can be genuinely respected as a true leader. So though it is a shocking story, a sad story, in the way that people treat each other, for Indians there is a special role, one that we can and should certainly be proud of.
Since the documentary showcases such a bold truth, did you at any stage face animosity from any quarters?
No, though there were people trying to discredit the film even before it was finished, but they didn’t ever directly try to stop the production of the film or threaten us in any way. We shot the film pretty quickly but the editing took a long time. So by the time people knew about it we had a lot of our footage already shot. I was a little worried about it in the beginning, so I made sure that wherever possible the contentious things were shot first. On the whole the main tactic of the industry is to ignore it. They know all about the film but publicly they will claim that they have never heard of it. Anything they do to draw attention to it is going to be bad for them, because there is no way they can win the arguments that are presented in the film. Their arguments are primitive, indefensible and bogus. So they’d rather not have the debate. And while talking to Dr. Rost, the former Vice President of Pfizer, his point was that, in a way the drug industry doesn’t fear bad press or bad PR in the same way that other industries do. Fundamentally their power is derived from political connections and that enables them to have monopolies and all their profit stems from these monopolies. Their customers have no choice in terms of buying from someone else, or just deciding not to buy. Barring an extremely fundamental systemic change, nothing can really hurt them. Only thing they fear is a massive public outcry, a public revolt. Which is pretty far off, because most people don’t know about the issue.
How long did it take to shoot the entire documentary?
The shoot was spread out over two years but all told we had around 50 shooting days.
Did you anticipate that your documentary would have the longest theatrical run?
It was wonderful to see Fire in the Blood become the first nonfiction film to run more than three weeks in Indian cinemas. We are very proud of our film and have had very strong reactions from audiences, critics and so on, all over the world. It’s not that we doubted the quality of our film but based on past experiences, it is very tough in India. Not just for documentary but even independent films, English films, any kind of serious films. People don’t generally want to go watch serious-minded material. We received great support from PVR and various organisations which were working with us. We also had a lot of press support. Our strategy was to release the film in the US and UK before India. Because when something Indian goes abroad and does well, people here are more curious about it. We had a very good partner in UK, our executive producer was very well known and exceptionally well-connected, so we decided to release there first and then Sundance happened. So we got very good critical response from some big publications and I think that also created a good momentum for us before we released in India. So it was a conscious decision and it has all helped.
Photo Credit: Sparkwater India/Fire in the Blood